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Calls grow for summit on collapse of Fraser sockeye run

Tyrone McNeil lands a sockeye salmon that will be cut into strips to be hung on a dry rack to cure for up to 10 days on the banks of the Fraser river near Hope, B.C.

Lyle Stafford

Calls for a Canada-U.S. salmon summit are increasing in the wake of the near total collapse of the Fraser River sockeye run.

Ujjal Dosanjh, a Liberal MP whose riding lies near the north arm of the Fraser, said Thursday the situation is grave enough that it deserves to be the focus of an intergovernmental conference involving federal, state and provincial representatives.

The collapse of the Fraser run "is going to have an impact on the aboriginal community, the commercial fishery and potentially the ecosystem as well - and that's pretty significant," said Mr. Dosanjh.

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"Governments on both sides of the border [need]to come together to look at this situation and determine if there's anything we can do to ensure this doesn't continue."

Mr. Dosanjh's remarks were made after the Department of Fisheries and Oceans confirmed only about 1.7 million sockeye are returning to the Fraser River this year. Until a few weeks ago DFO was predicting the run would number 10.6 million to 13 million, based on a strong spawning run in 2005, which produced a record number of juvenile salmon, known as smolts.

Test fisheries in the Pacific Ocean in recent weeks indicated the sockeye weren't coming back in expected numbers, however, and in-river tests confirmed on Tuesday that there will be a shortfall of about nine million to 11 million fish.

DFO officials are at a loss to say what happened to the salmon.

"I believe a summit is the only comprehensive solution. Salmon know no borders. I don't believe we can find a unilateral solution. It has to be found with U.S. co-operation - and the federal government needs to act," Mr. Dosanjh said.

Grand Chief Doug Kelly, chair of the B.C. First Nations Fisheries Council, said his group will write to officials in Ottawa and Victoria "calling for them to move on this."

He said the idea of an international summit was first proposed by Ernie Crey, a fisheries adviser for the Sto:lo First Nation, a community that lives along the Fraser and that will be hard hit because salmon are a key part of the native diet.

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The summit is "a good idea," Mr. Kelly said, adding that those attending should include federal Fisheries Minister Gail Shea, federal Environment Minister Jim Prentice, B.C. Environment Minister Barry Penner, the Washington State, Alaska and U.S. federal officials responsible for fisheries and the environment, and "non-governmental organizations that are concerned with fisheries and oceans."

"You know what, we've made Mother Nature sick and that sickness is manifesting itself in these poor returns of salmon. It's a crisis," he said.

Ms. Shea wasn't available for comment, but a spokesperson, Marie-Eve Higo, said in an e-mail: "The department has yet to receive a formal request regarding a joint U.S.-Canada summit to discuss the state of the sockeye salmon fishery, but remains open to discussions with stakeholders. If a letter is received by the department, we will review it and respond to the group directly."

While the cause of the collapse isn't known, salmon farms have been blamed.

Independent salmon researcher Alexandra Morton reported this year that genetic testing showed that sockeye infested with sea lice, and collected near fish farms, had come from the Fraser River.

Mary Ellen Walling, executive director of the B.C. Salmon Farmers Association, denies any link to the salmon collapse.

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"In the case of Fraser River sockeye, since the closest salmon farm is over 110 kilometres away from the Fraser River's mouth, there is no opportunity for out-migrating Fraser River salmon fry to come in contact with farmed salmon during their critical early life stages and; therefore, no chance for sea louse transmission to occur," she said in an e-mail.

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About the Author
National correspondent

Mark Hume is a National Correspondent for The Globe and Mail, based in Vancouver, writing news and feature stories on a daily basis about his home province of British Columbia. His weekly column, which often challenges the orthodoxy on environmental issues, appears every Monday. More

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